Monday, November 02, 2009

SCOTUS Snubs Seale; Stevens, Scalia Squawk

Today the Supreme Court dismissed the certified question from the Fifth Circuit in United States v. Seale, concerning the statute of limitations applicable to the case. The Court offered no explanation for its action, which I can only assume is how it typically handles these matters.

But not everyone was on board with the decision. Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Scalia, issued a statement respecting the dismissal of the certified question:
This certificate presents us with a pure question of law that may well determine the outcome of a number of cases of ugly racial violence remaining from the 1960s.

* * *

The question is narrow, debatable, and important. I recognize that the question reaches us in an interlocutory posture, as Seale appealed his conviction on numerous grounds, and that “[i]t is primarily the task of a Court of Appeals to reconcile its internal difficulties,” Wisniewski v. United States, 353 U. S. 901, 902 (1957) (per curiam). Yet I see no benefit and significant cost to postponing the question’s resolution. A prompt answer from this Court will expedite the termination of this litigation and determine whether other similar cases may be prosecuted. In these unusual circumstances, certification can serve the interests not only of legal clarity but also of prosecutorial economy and “the proper administration and expedition of judicial business.” Ibid.

The certification process has all but disappeared in recent decades. The Court has accepted only a handful of certified cases since the 1940s and none since 1981; it is a newsworthy event these days when a lower court even tries for certification. Section 1254(2) and this Court’s Rule 19 remain part of our law because the certification process serves a valuable, if limited, function. We ought to avail ourselves of it in an appropriate case. In my judgment, this case should be briefed and set for argument.
So what happens next? Presumably the original panel will address the questions it passed on the first time around, as discussed in this article in the New York Times.

UPDATE: Additional coverage from Tony Mauro is available at The BLT.